Sunday, June 24, 2012

Proudly from Tirana

For friends and readers who wonder what's happened to my semi-regular postings and why I am slow to respond to e-mails, the answer is simple:  Pride Month.  This is the first Pride Month of my life that I am completely out to the world, and I can't get enough.  It's like Christmas in June.  I'm also like one of Santa's helpers in that I haven't worked so hard at volunteer efforts in years.  If you prefer, it's What Do Uranium and a Transgender Foreign Service Officer Have in Common? taken to the next level.  I'm exhausted, but it's a beautiful, peaceful exhaustion.

For me three of the most beautiful days of this month -- indeed, of my life -- were spent in Tirana, Albania.  Talk about a country I was sure I would never visit!  1981 found me briefly in Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia, not all that far from the fortified Albanian boarder.  Radio Tirana was the loudest station on the radio dial.  It was classic Cold War propaganda but with a twist.  They hated the Soviets; they hated the Chinese; they hated the US, they hated the Yugoslavs.  By 1981 I don't think Albania had a single ally left except perhaps for North Korea.

In 1981 I was also well into my personal Great Purge that followed my failed college attempt to come to terms with being transgender.  I was in deep hiding from myself and was in Durbrovnik fresh from two months in the Soviet Union.  I was already saying to myself consciously that transition was impossible but that I could channel myself into other pursuits such as Russian studies.  Indeed, I succeeded at doing so for nearly ten years until collapsing under the weight in 1990.

In Dubrovnik in 1981 I told myself there were two things I would never do in this life:  transition gender or visit Albania.  Now I have done both.

I arrived in Albania on June 13 along with Romanian LGBT activists Tudor Kovacs and Alexandra Carastoian for the Regional LGBT Workshop organized by the U.S. Embassy in Tirana.  This was the first event of its type organized by a U.S. Embassy.  Put together by Cindy and Jay, dedicated local staff, and Albanian LGBT volunteers, the workshop brought together about a hundred embassy staff and regional activists from seventeen countries for two and a half days of papers, discussions, and networking.  Nothing of the kind had ever happened before under U.S. auspices, least of all in this part of the world that is not known for being decidedly pro-LGBT.  My hat is off to everyone at Embassy Tirana for putting together an event that I know would be beyond my meager capabilities here in Romania.

Kevin Sessums Carries His Philosophy on His Arm
Kevin Sessums, eloquent author of Mississippi Sissy and speaker on gay issues, came as keynote speaker.  So did Mindy Michels, who lived and worked in Albania from 2006 through 2010 and who, with a small dedicated group of Albanian volunteers including Kheni Karaj and Arber Kodra, began the movement for LGBT rights in Albania.  To my surprise, I discovered that Mindy and I had lived walking distance from each other in Takoma Park, MD, for years at a time I was still deeply closeted.

I can't do justice in words to the energy and emotions of those two and a half days.  To anyone reading these lines who was at the workshop, I apologize for the deficiency.  This is a time I wish I was an artist who could show the emotions on canvas that I find hard to put into words.

With Arber and His Mom
If I had to choose a single moment that captures for me the meaning of those days, it would be a simple, very human one that came during the coffee break on the first morning.  I was to moderate a panel in the afternoon on Straight Allies, Family, and Friends:  Why They Are Needed and How They Can Help.  Mindy was to be on the panel to speak about PFLAG, and we had corresponded briefly a week earlier.  I also knew that Arber Kodra was to be on the panel along with his mother.  It was during the coffee break that Arber searched me out.  I asked if his mother was already in the conference hall.  Arber answered was that she was at the conference hotel but was sitting outside for fear of the cameras.  She had never spoken in public before about her son being gay.  My heart ached as I remembered my own mom and the few emotional words we had ever been able to exchange about me.  I asked Arber if he would introduce us.

Arber's Mom Speaks During Panel Session
The picture speaks for itself.  I felt an immediate human chord connected us, and I watched as Arber's mom moved from being fearful of the cameras to later sitting in full fiew as she spoke about her son and about her love and support of him.  Did I mention that LGBT conditions in Albania are somewhere back where they were in the US perhaps thirty years ago?  It was a brave and emotional moment.

I also had my moment in the spotlight in a talk that, not surprisingly, had the same title as this web journal.  (My talk along with others are available on-line at the conference web-site under workshop materials.)  I was stunned at the end of my 50 minutes to get a standing ovation, the first of my life.  I even lowered myself behind the podium for a moment in surprise.  

What most people in the hall did not realize was that this was the first time I had ever spoken in front of a group about my own life experience.  I skipped lunch that day for nervous last minute practice.There were panels about regional government action on LGBT issues, about outreach efforts at U.S. embassies, social media, pride parades and demonstrations, and more.  

With Ken Kero-Mentz and Kosovar Friend
There were evening receptions and informal meetings.  I know that for many at the workshop, this was just one of many they had attended through the years.  For me and for many others in the hall, this was the first.  It left an indelible impression.

Ken Reads My Acceptance Remarks
Shortly before the workshop in Tirana I learned that I would be one of two honorees to receive this year's Equality Award from Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA).  Both the award and the reaction to my presence in Tirana have made me feel increasingly like Peter Sellers as Chance the gardener in the 1979 film Being There.  I said it in my acceptance remarks for the award that were read by GLIFAA board member and friend Ken Kero-Mentz whom I got to meet for the first time in person in Albania.

I also said the same, in effect, at the end of my talk in Tirana.  I looked around he room as people stood and applauded, and I had to interject that the young people in that room were the heroes.  I have spent most of my life scared and in hiding.  I was born when Eisenhower was President, and it took me until two years ago to come out publically once and for all.  To you, my friends, the future belongs.  As difficult as conditions may be in your countries, things will get better because of you.  I am proud of all of you in Tirana and repeat the wish I expressed at the end of my talk:
May we all live in self-acceptance and peace no matter what our sexual orientation or gender identity.  
Life is too short to do otherwise.
To all readers of these notes, I wish you a Happy Pride.

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